- Author: Jim Root
Big 12 Preview
3. Iowa St.
5. Texas Tech
6. West Virginia
7. Oklahoma St.
9. Kansas St.
All Conference Awards
POY: Monte Morris, Sr., Iowa St.
Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas
Newcomer of the Year: Josh Jackson, G/F, Fr., Kansas
Freshman of the Year: Josh Jackson, G/F, Kansas
Key Returners: Frank Mason, Devonte Graham, Landen Lucas, Carlton Bragg, Svi Mykhailiuk
Key Losses: Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden
Key Newcomers: Josh Jackson, Udoka Azuibuike, Dwight Coleby
Postseason Projection: 1 seed
Normally, an elite recruit (maybe the top recruit in the country) committing to Kansas would enrage a Mizzou fan like myself, but with the insane amount of talent that the Evil Blue Empires have assembled (that would be Duke and Kentucky), it’s nice to see someone with the potential to challenge them. Between the double-barreled point guards of Frank Mason and Devonte Graham and that aforementioned recruit (wing Josh Jackson), Kansas might have the best backcourt in the country.
Armed with that backcourt, Midwestern good guy Bill Self will attempt to win his 48th straight Big 12 title (all numbers approximate) and take down King Rat (Coach K) and the Used Car Salesman (Calipari). Those guards certainly aren’t the only weapons in his arsenal, however. While none of the Jayhawks frontcourt options jump off the page as NBA prospects, they should be able to go four deep, along with some lineups with Jackson/Svi Mykhailiuk playing small-ball 4 and unleashing holy hell on opposing defenses. This year’s crop of KU bigs fits pretty well into classic Bill Self big man tropes: Landen Lucas is the senior who fans complain about his extensive playing time ahead of more talented youngsters (see ’06 Christian Moody, ’13 Kevin Young, ’16 Jamari Traylor), Udoka Azubuike is the stud young gun who plays way less than expected (’07 Darrell Arthur, ’08 Cole Aldrich, ’09 Markieff Morris, ’11 Thomas Robinson, ’13 Perry Ellis, ’16 Cheick Diallo), and Carlton Bragg is the one who didn’t play much last year that breaks out in a big way (’08 Arthur, ’09 Aldrich, ‘12 Robinson, ’14 Ellis). Wow, look how many of the breakout guys are the ones who got semi-buried the year before! Two lessons there: 1) Bill Self can develop the heck out of big guys, and 2) watch out for Azubuike in 2017-18. The wild card up front is Ole Miss transfer Dwight Coleby, a rebounding beast as a sophomore Runnin’ Rebel.
The Jayhawks should have an incredibly versatile offensive attack, starting with the dual ball-handlers in Mason and Graham – I wrote a little about how deadly that attack can be here, and Self will use that wisely. Bill Self teams always feature a great high-low attack with great big-to-big passing, but the spacing around that action will be set up through a penetration- and ball screen-heavy attack. Both Mason and Graham can consistently beat defenders off the dribble, and very few college teams have two great perimeter defenders to throw at them. Plus, Jackson is also a dynamic rim attacker, offering a different dimension than his predecessor on the wing, Wayne Selden – a man built like a Spartan of legend but never much of a driving threat. Both PGs can hit the outside shot consistently, and although Jackson isn’t a proven outside shooter at this point, Self does have a floor spacing option at the 3 – the enigmatic Mykhailiuk. Svi came over to the USA to much hubbub as a freshman, but has largely failed to live up to that potential in two years. Like many Jayhawks before him, though, expect him to make great strides as he becomes an upperclassman.
An extremely intriguing lineup choice for the Jayhawks will be the aforementioned smallball – Mason, Graham, Svi, spacing the floor around a Jackson/big man pick and roll. Jackson is a very good decision-maker with the ball in his hands, and with three 38%+ shooters around him, he could be a wrecking ball.
Defensively, the Jayhawks have the versatility in size and speed to match up with just about any team, and Self squads have been in the top 11 in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency every year since 2006 except one (2014, 31st). That consistent greatness along with the offensive talent and skill should put Kansas right back on top of the conference and squarely in the national title picture.
Key Returners: Al Freeman, Jonathan Motley, Terry Maston, Ish Wainwright
Key Losses: Taurean Prince, Rico Gathers, Lester Medford
Key Newcomers: Manu Lecomte, Nuni Omot, Mark Vital, Jo Acuil
Postseason Projection: 4-8 seed
Another year, another excellent frontcourt for the Baylor Bears. Despite the losses of Gathers and Prince, Scott Drew’s squad still may have the best unit in the Big 12, led by rapidly-improving junior Jonathan Motley and burly forwards Ish Wainwright and Terry Maston. Lester Medford seemed like a bigger loss after averaging a superb 6.5 assists per game last year, but Manu Lecomte should slide in comfortably at the PG spot after transferring from Miami. Add in a bunch of other solid pieces, and fans in Waco should have another NCAA Tournament team to cheer for this year.
Scott “the brother who didn’t hit a game winner” Drew should have the length and athleticism he likes to play his zone defense style, traditionally a matchup 1-3-1 but with many other variations built in as well. Motley should be a force in the paint, as his 6.3% block rate and 12.8% offensive rebound rate were both top-100 in the country. Without Gathers eating rebounds like Kobayashi devours hot dogs, there’ll be even more boards available for the taking. Maston and Wainwright should step into bigger roles this year, too, with Wainwright in particular bringing an intriguing offensive versatility to the table (he can shoot, pass, and rebound with proficiency). If Drew wants to be super adventurous with lineups, he could go ultra-small with Wainwright at center; he’s strong enough to hold his own against most college bigs. Either way, the team will continue to relentlessly attack the offensive glass even in the absence of Gathers, though perhaps not at the top-5 rate nationally that they have the past 3 years.
The team’s leading returning scorer is actually wing Al Freeman, another athlete who’s strong for his position and possesses a smooth shooting touch (38% from deep). He can play a little bit of point, too, but the arrival of Lecomte is perfect timing. The lefty Belgian is a jitterbug whose assist numbers at Miami were held down by the presence of Angel Rodriguez dominating the ball, but expect that 1.7apg number to increase to something like 4.5 or 5.0 this year with all of the finishing options around him. He excels at probing the defense, using hesitation effectively to freeze help defenders and create passing lanes. Drew would do well to allow him to attack off ball screens several times per game.
The bench depth should be strong, with a young group of talented guys eager to prove themselves. King McClure was a top-100 recruit last year who took a backseat to the more experienced scorers (14.1% usage, very low), and fellow sophomore guard Jake Lindsey can play several positions in a pinch (including PG – 25.6% assist rate). Up front, Nuni Omot was ranked #13 by 247sports.com among JUCO transfers, and Mark Vital could play a “vital” role (that’s terrible, I’m sorry) as sort of a Wainwright-lite off the bench (minus the three-point shooting). The most intriguing prospect (and biggest question mark), though, is 7-footer Jo Acuil, a highly-regarded JUCO transfer last year who missed 2015-16 with heart problems. He is an absolute force as a shot-blocker, and if he is able to play and anchor the Bears’ zone defense in the middle (allowing Motley to play the 4, which he is very capable of), the Bears become a lot more fearsome defensively.
In a year where the biggest challenger to Kansas’s staggering Big 12 title run is not clearly apparent, the Bears are my pick as the best of the bunch.
3. Iowa State
Key Returners: Monte Morris, Deonte Burton, Naz Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas
Key Losses: Georges Niang, Abdel Nader, Jameel McKay
Key Newcomers: Jakolby Long, Darrell Bowie, Nick Babb, Donovan Jackson, Cameron Lard
Postseason Projection: 4-8 seed
If you liked watching the Marquette teams that played Jimmy Butler, Lazar Hayward, and Jae Crowder at the center position from 2009-2012, then boy do I have the team for you! Iowa State finds itself almost completely devoid of post players, but with a plethora of talent from the 1 to 3 positions. Only Merrill Holden, a Louisiana Tech grad transfer, and Cameron Lard (hah, Lard), a 4-star freshman, can reasonably be called post players. Given that Deonte Burton and Darrell Bowie are both more of 3’s than 4’s, it might be fair to say that Iowa State’s best 8 players are all perimeter guys – and by no means is that a complaint from my end! That means this team is going to have ball-handling and shooting galore on the floor at all times, a perfect fit for Steve Prohm’s system.
It starts with All-Everything PG Monte Morris, a four-year starter who will play nearly every minute on the floor. Morris is the king of the assist-to-turnover ratio, putting up absurd numbers of 4.8, 4.6, and 4.2 (assist/TO) over his first three years while constantly having the ball in his hands. His scoring has improved every year, he has a terrific floater, he can hit the 3, and he is a pest defensively. He’s not quite Kris Dunn, but I would be shocked if Morris can’t carve out a role as a great backup PG in the NBA (at least).
He’ll have a plethora of options to pass to, as both Matt Thomas and Naz Mitrou-Long (a beloved player around the 3MW offices) return as lights-out shooters on the wings. Neither is much of distributor, but with Morris around to handle the ball, they don’t need to be. They’re both better-than-you-think defenders, as well. Burton is the other mainstay returnee, a linebacker who somehow found a basketball court on accident, coming in at a stout 6’4, 250 pounds. Burton can knock down a 3 here and there, but with that frame, he excels most at getting to the rim – though he could help himself by drawing more fouls during that pursuit.
The group of newcomers is as diverse as it is talented, and many will need to play key roles right away. There seems to be plenty of fits for Prohm’s open, spacing-based offense, which should lead to great perimeter depth. JUCO transfer Donovan Jackson will probably be Morris’s successor at the point, and if he can prove effective right away, it would be nice to ease Morris’s insane minutes load (he played 98% of the team’s minutes in conference play – 98%! That’s 2% less than all of the minutes!). Nick Weiler-Babb, a transfer from Arkansas and younger brother of former Cyclone Chris Babb, arrives to uphold Mitrou-Long’s hyphenated last name legacy (and he’s a decent wing shooter and defender, as well). Jakolby Long is a bigger wing who can score and defend, and Bowie is another 3/4 combo forward in the Burton mold. He comes with some off-the-court red flags, but if Prohm can get him focused on the court, he will contribute.
A crucial part of this year’s team will be finding some sort of interior defense and rebounding. Holden will help, but he only played 23mpg in Conference USA – not a recipe for Big 12 success. Lard has a tantalizing set of skills for this particular team – he’s a great rebounder, can block shots, and can catch and finish inside. He’s not going to score one-on-one pretty much ever, but this team won’t need him to do that.
The Cyclones have a long history of not fouling whatsoever defensively, and while that keeps opponents off the free throw line, this lack of aggression and physicality sometimes hurts them as well. Expect a great deal more of 86-82 games for the ‘Clones this year, but I’ll wager on them having enough perimeter firepower to come out on top of the majority of those games.
Note: Cameron Lard has been ruled a non-qualifier by the NCAA and will take a redshirt this year. Iowa State's rebounding could be borderline catastrophic - I'd probably slide them down to 5th behind Texas and Texas Tech, maybe behind WV as well.
Key Returners: Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis, Tevin Mack, Shaq Cleare
Key Losses: Isaiah Taylor, Prince Ibeh, Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, Cameron Ridley
Key Newcomers: Andrew Jones, James Banks, Jacob Young, Jarrett Allen
Postseason Projection: 5-9 seed
This Texas squad seems a little under the radar heading into this year. The senior class of Felix, Ridley, Lammert, Ibeh (eBay!), and Demarcus Holland is a big loss, as is the surprising (and ill-advised) pro declaration by Isaiah Taylor, but there’s still a lot to like on this young Longhorn roster.
The standout group is the backcourt. Though undeniably young, Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis, and Andrew Jones will be an awesome trio with varied skills, and Kendal Yancy and Jacob Young off the bench bring a nice blend of talents as well. Roach is a nightmare attacking the rim (67.4 FT Rate last year, would have been 46th nationally if he played more minutes); he’ll have plenty of opportunities to attack off the bounce in Shaka Smart’s open offense. Where this group will really thrive, though, is defensively – Smart toned down the Havoc last year with a more lumbering team, but Roach and Jones in particular will make life miserable for opposing ball-handlers.
With the departures of Ibeh, Ridley, and Lammert, you can expect to see a lot of 6’6 versatile wing Tevin Mack at the 4, which is more in line with the expected approach for a Smart-coached team. The ‘Horns also picked up another stretch 4 option in the grad transfer market – Mareik Isom, who will look very familiar to Texas Tech’s Chris Beard after putting up solid numbers for him at Little Rock last season.
Down low, Shaq Cleare will be a solid rebounding presence, and freshman James Banks has the big man skills to succeed early in Smart’s system (can run the floor, block shots, finish), but the real gem here is fellow freshman Jarrett Allen, a 5-star late commitment from UT’s backyard. He’s a super mobile, multi-skilled 6’10 center who should start from day 1. He can score one-on-one in the post with his face up game or off jump hooks, and he’ll be an intimidating presence in the defensive paint. Like most freshman bigs, though, he’ll need to add a bit of strength.
All of these pieces add up to Smart likely being able to play more like his trademark Havoc VCU teams, where they led the country in TO % forced for 3 straight years from 2012-2014. On the offensive end, Smart teams tend to play, well, smart – they don’t turn the ball over, despite the frenetic pace at which his Ram squads often played. His teams do rely a lot on shooting, as the ball movement isn’t always great (consistently low assist rate). Davis, Isom, and maybe Young are probably the only lights-out shooters on the team, though Roach, Mack, Jones, and Yancy can all hit a trey given time and space. The ability to stretch the floor and provide driving lanes for Roach, Jones, and Young will be crucial.
The Longhorns will be carried by their defense, and Kerwin Roach is about as obvious of a breakout sophomore candidate as you’ll find, but the team’s overall offensive efficiency will need to be monitored for them to finish this high. I’m bullish on Shaka getting the youngsters ready to play, and I think he’ll get his first NCAA Tournament win in Austin.
5. Texas Tech
Key Returners: Keenan Evans, Justin Gray, Zach Smith, Aaron Ross, Norense Odiase
Key Losses: Toddrick Gotcher, Devaughntah Williams
Key Newcomers: Anthony Livingston, Niem Stevenson, Shadell Millinghaus
Postseason Projection: 5-10 seed
The first of three Big 12 teams who made a coaching change this offseason, the Red Raiders probably bring back the most talent of that trio. They also lost the best coach of the three, as Tubby Smith left for greener pastures/more money at Memphis (side note: could be interesting if Memphis is added to the Big 12 soon, as is rumored at the time of this writing). However, the new head man in Lubbock, Chris Beard, is no slouch either. Beard has taken the circuitous route to what he calls his “dream job” at Texas Tech – not just this offseason, where he went from Little Rock to UNLV to Tech in a few weeks, but overall in his career. He coached two different junior colleges in 1999-2001, then spent 10 years in Lubbock, eventually earning the rank of associate head coach under Pat Knight before the (gigantic failure of a) regime change to Billy Gillispie. From there, Beard led something called the South Carolina Warriors in the American Basketball Association to a 29-2 record, made a regional final with the McMurry Warhawks, a Division 2 college in Abilene, Texas, followed that by going 47-15 over two years at Angelo State, another Texas Division 2 school, before finally leading the Trojans of Little Rock to a 30-5 record and an upset of Purdue last year.
The identity of Beard’s teams start on the defensive end – they play a disciplined, conservative pack line scheme (think Tony Bennett’s Virginia team). Some specific principles of that defense include keeping the ball out of the lane, doubling the post and forcing kick-outs, and most importantly, if your man doesn’t have the ball, being inside the “pack line,” an invisible line about a foot inside the three-point line, thus crowding the passing and driving lanes of the opponent’s offense. Pack line teams generally play slow offensively as well, relying on their defense to “out-efficiency” the opponent. Beard will bring that style to the Red Raiders, hopefully getting a junior-laden roster to buy into the success that Bennett’s Cavaliers have had.
As for the players under Beard’s direction, the Red Raiders return several key parts from an NCAA tournament team, including PG Keenan Evans, wing Justin Gray, and big men Zach Smith, Aaron Ross, and Norense Odiase. Their stats aren’t mind-blowing, but that’s because Tubby had them playing very slow, balanced basketball. Interestingly, Tech rattled off its best string of wins while Odiase was out with an injury, knocking off Iowa St., Baylor, and Oklahoma in a three-game stretch. They only went 6-6 in the brutal Big 12 without him, but the court had more space without Odiase constantly sitting in the paint. Beard will need to figure out how to use his size inside without compromising the rest of the offense.
Four transfers should have instant impacts: JUCO wings Niem Stevenson and Shadell Millinghaus, and grad transfers Giovanni McLean (Quinnipiac) and Anthony Livingston (Arkansas State). The JUCO guys will provide wing scoring (especially Stevenson), and the grad transfers will provide depth at PG and in the post, respectively. Both McLean and Livingston put up very strong numbers at their previous stops, but they might not even crack the starting lineup in Lubbock. At Little Rock, Bread showed an impressive ability to find players in a pinch, and the Red Raiders depth will be greatly helped by his moves this offseason.
With the talent TT returns from last year and the lack of a coaching drop-off despite Tubby’s departure, there’s a solid chance Tech produces another bubbly, fringe-tournament team. The biggest roadblock may be the depth of the conference from 2 through 8, but Beard always seems to find a way to be successful wherever he goes.
6. West Virginia
Key Returners: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, Tarik Phillip, Esa Ahmad, Nathan Adrian
Key Losses: Devon Williams, Jaysean Paige, Jonathan Holton
Key Newcomers: Maciej Bender, Sagaba Konate, Chase Harler
Postseason Projection: 5-9 seed
Huggy Bear!! I can’t hide my excitement for another year of Bobby Huggins roaming the sidelines in Morgantown, bringing his specific brand of insanity (and insane pressure) to the proceedings. The Mountaineers lose three players that were crucial to the team’s strategy last year: leading scorer and steal artist Jaysean Paige, as well as two of the country’s best rebounders in Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton. West Virginia thrived on second chances (1st in the country in offensive rebounding percentage) and creating turnovers (1st in the country in steal percentage); replacing those three guys will be huge for keeping those areas elite.
The steals department is the less concerning area of the two. All three projected perimeter starters – Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, and Tarik Phillip – ranked in the top 100 in the country in steal rate, and both Esa Ahmad and Nathan Adrian had very good rates for big men. The backcourt depth is a little concerning – redshirt freshman Beetle Bolden (great name) will need to bring something to the table right away – but the team’s helter-skelter pressure defense should be in good shape. The biggest knock on this strategy is that the team fouls like CRAZY – they’ve been dead last in the country in defensive free throw rate for two years running. Opponents need to take advantage of these freebies to have a better shot at knocking off the ‘Eers.
The offensive rebounding, however, will be more of a work in progress. Huggins has some bodies to throw at the glass, but offensive rebounding isn’t just about being big. Williams and Holton had a knack for being in the right area to grab caroms, and Ahmad, Adrian, Elijah Macon, and freshmen Maciej Bender and Sagaba Konate will need to put their berserker caps on to be up to Mountaineer standards.
Apart from the glass, West Virginia’s offense is an interesting mirror of their defensives selves. They get to the free throw line a ton and turn it over too much, symptoms of the frenetic style they push the game towards. There’s not a ton of shooting on this year’s roster, although Phillip and (surprisingly) Adrian can knock down threes when necessary. Carter and Miles will shoot, but at 30% each from deep, they aren’t scaring anyone. They’ll get a ton of easy offense from their defensive pressure, though, and that alone will keep their offensive efficiency in the top 50 or 60.
This year’s West Virginia team doesn’t quite have the elite-level pieces to play Huggins’s extreme style to its pinnacle, but they’re good enough to be a tournament team. The defensive pressure will continue to wear on a lot of teams, especially during the dog days of the season. Huggins won’t let his own team’s intensity come down, which will keep them competitive throughout the Big 12 season.
7. Oklahoma State
Key Returners: Jawun Evans, Phil Forte, Tavarius Shine, Jeffrey Carroll, Leyton Hammonds
Key Losses: Chris Olivier, Jeff Newberry, Tyree Griffin
Key Newcomers: Cameron McGriff, Lindy Waters III, Thomas Dziagwa
Postseason Projection: Bubbly - 8 seed to NIT
The second Big 12 team to make a coaching change this offseason, Oklahoma State seems to be a team on the rise. Brad Underwood brings his brand of position-less basketball from Stephen F. Austin, where he went a baffling 89-14 (53-1) over three years, including three NCAA Tournament bids (and two wins in the tourney). That exact style may be a little harder to replicate in a more talent-rich (and size-rich) conference, but the principles of the system – multiple ball-handlers and creators offensively, the ability to switch and pressure defensively – should translate well to a league with some pressure defenses (look how SFA did against West Va in the tourney last year!) and teams with multiple perimeter scorers.
Underwood’s teams’ statistical profiles really reflect these stat tendencies. SFA was 11th, 4th, and 5th nationally in assist percentage three years, emphasizing the value of having multiple passers on the floor. They were also 7th, 5th, and 1st in turnover percentage forced defensively, showing just how much Underwood stresses pressure. The gap in Average Possession Length between his teams offensively and defensively also highlights how they play – they speed you up, but then show excellent patience once they take the ball from you.
For a coach bringing a relatively unconventional style to a big conference, this Cowboy roster is actually reasonably well suited to it. Jawun Evans won’t be Thomas Walkup, but he can score, drive, pass, and rebound as the primary ball-handler. He’s definitely an all-conference candidate in this offense and could even be a dark horse POY candidate if things break right. Phil Forte, who missed most of last season after getting hurt in the team’s season opening tournament, will provide spacing for driving lanes, and has also shown the ability to be a pest defensively. Up front, Underwood has a plethora of 6’5-6’7 forwards who all bring varied skills to the table – Joe Burton could see increased playing time for his ability to handle the ball, and the defensive versatility of Tavarius Shine, Jeffrey Carroll, and Leyton Hammonds should work very well in Underwood’s matchup man pressure. Mitchell Solomon is more of a true big man than any of Underwood’s SFA teams had, but he’ll find a way to use Solomon’s shot-blocking within the team scheme. Tyree Griffin transferring was a big loss, though – he would have been a key second ball-handler who could have passed and pressured alongside Evans.
Oklahoma State may not yet look like a true Underwood team this year, but there are some pieces present to help them claw up the standings a few places. After their Bedlam rival went to the Final Four last year, fans in Stillwater will be anxious to see the Cowboys rise to contention again. Gallagher-Iba Arena can be an electric place to watch a game when it’s going right, and I firmly believe Underwood has the stuff to get them back to that level sooner rather than later.
Key Returners: Jordan Woodard, Khadeem Lattin, Dante Buford
Key Losses: Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler
ey Newcomers: Kameron McGusty, Austin Grandstaff, Darrion Strong, Kristian Doolittle
Postseason Projection: Very bubbly - 8 seed to NIT
Easy candidate for the team that makes me look dumbest in this preview. But losing Player of the Year Buddy Hield, point guard Isaiah Cousins, and paint cornerstone Ryan Spangler is a gigantic blow. Those three guys each started all 105 of the Sooners’ games over the past 3 seasons. That’s 315 out of 315 possible starts! Yes, I thought I needed to multiply 105 x 3 for effect! The cupboard isn’t bare without those 3, but that’s a pretty gigantic blow for a program to take.
When you lose that much experience and production, though, it opens the door wide for breakout players. Oklahoma has several possibilities, with any of Christian James, Dante Buford, Jamuni McNeace, or Rashard Odomes potentially being the prime candidate for that role. That’s not to mention Kameron McGusty, a freshman wing with great potential – if he can seize some playing time, he might be the surprise star. The Sooners thought they were going to get even more wing help from Austin Grandstaff, an Ohio State transfer who never actually played a minute for the Buckeyes, but he’s already moved on to his third school (DePaul) with zero minutes still played. All that movement without seeing the court makes me wonder if Grandstaff has any off-the-court issues…but who am I to speculate! One last wild card is the 7’0 former JUCO transfer that I affectionately refer to as MANYANG! I thought we’d get big things out of MANYANG! last year, but he barely saw the floor for a team that sorely needed depth (bad sign!). I’m hopeful Kruger can salvage something out of him – he had an absurd 16.6% block rate in his limited minutes, which would have led the entire country had he played more.
With so much uncertainty at the 2-through-4 spots, Coach Lon Kruger will lean on the experience of returning starters Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Lattin. Woodard has played at least 27mpg all three years of his career, and without Cousins around, he’ll be responsible for a vast majority of the ball-handling duties. Lattin is a physical monster and defensive presence who will need to refine his (extremely raw) offensive game. Both guys will be counted not only for great defense and increased offensive production, but leadership – no one else on the roster has played more than 12.3 minutes per game before.
Kruger’s teams rely on keeping teams out of the lane defensively – they want you to take jumpers that make you uneasy, or if you do beat the perimeter defense, they want you to be bothered by Lattin and MANYANG! He’s a man-to-man disciple who will force teams to score one on one – the defensive discipline won’t lose with shoddy rotations against ball movement, although the inexperience will test that this year.
There’s a lot of potential here, but the uncertainty of the sophomore class (who will be playing key roles up and down the roster) leaves OU at the bottom of the massive middle tier in the Big 12 for me. There’s definitely potential for that to be completely wrong, of course, and that’s part of what makes this such a fun conference. TCU and Kansas State can beat anyone at home, and the rest of the top 8 can win or lose against each other on almost any night.
9. Kansas St.
Key Returners: Wesley Iwundu, Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, DJ Johnson
Key Losses: Justin Edwards, Stephen Hurt
Key Newcomers: Xavier Sneed, James Love
Postseason Projection: NIT
The team with the worst mascot in D1 hoops will again try to claw up the extremely competitive Big 12 standings, but without many dynamic offensive weapons and the unimaginative Bruce Weber still at the helm, the Wildcats (a nickname as bland as their coach!) still seem like they’re lagging a bit behind the middle tier crowd. The sophomore class provides a lot of promise, with Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown and Dean Wade all looking like program pillars for 3 more years, and Wesley Iwundu is a very good versatile wing. Whether they’ll be playing for Weber next year, though, is the burning question.
After starting strong in Manhattan and earning a 4-seed (with Crazy Frank Martin’s players, it should be noted), the Wildcats have slowly fallen into mediocrity, and the big knock on Weber (that he can’t recruit) has started to bubble up again. At Illinois, his best teams were with the Bill Self-recruited teams in his first 3 years (regular reminder: Bill Self is a freaking amazing basketball coach), which eventually led to his firing there. Another critique of Weber is also threatening to hurt him, as well – his teams are pretty boring to watch, honestly. The Wildcats violate the Cardinal Rule of Keeping Your Job: if you can’t be good, at least be entertaining. Weber’s K State teams have all finished 250th or lower in pace, and the last three teams have all been outside the top 100 in offensive efficiency. They also don’t shoot threes (326th and 271st in 3PA/FGA last 2 years). All of this, along with a Big 12 conference record that’s gotten worse every year he’s been the coach, has Bruce wearing hot pads on his butt cheeks this year.
Weber’s defensive strategy is actually far more aggressive than I realized – his teams force turnovers, but their propensity to foul and lack of discipline on the defensive glass has kept them out of the elite ranks. DJ Johnson, Wade, and Iwundu have the size up front to see drastic improvement on the defensive boards, but rebounding often comes down to work rate and effort, and Weber will need to get that out of his guys to elevate the performance on the defensive glass.
Offensively, this team could do with playing a lot faster. Stokes, Brown, and especially Iwundu are all good passers (always a strength of Weber-coached teams), and getting those guys into space would create a lot of easy baskets through their open court vision. Wade is athletic enough to run with them, and small ball lineups featuring Iwundu at the 4 and Wade at the 5 could give opponents a lot of problems with their versatility and skill. I also have to throw in a personal testimonial for Xavier “X-Man” Sneed, a freshman wing who I saw play several times during his prep career in St. Louis – like Iwundu, he’s long and very skilled.
All in all, though, I think this program will need a shift to a more creative coach before it steps up the Big 12 standings, especially given the strength of this offseason’s coaching changes around the conference. Weber is a great caretaker of other coaches’ players, but he just has not proven he can keep a big conference squad at a high level. He’d be an awesome hire for any Missouri Valley program that fires its coach next spring, though!
Key Returners: Malique Trent, Chauncey Collins, Brandon Parrish, Vladimir Brodziansky, Kenrich Williams
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Alex Robinson, Josh Parrish, Jaylen Fisher
Postseason Projection: NIT to CBI
The bottom-feeding TCU program took a step in the right direction this offseason, pulling off a major coup by hiring alum Jamie Dixon away from his perch at Pitt. Though Dixon’s elite success waned after the move to the ACC, he racked up an impressive 328-123 record in the Steel City, and if he can get the Horned Frogs into even semi-consistent NCAA Tournament bid contention, he’ll be hailed as a hero in Fort Worth. As my friend Mike Dean says, TCU fans are still celebrating that monumental win over Kansas in 2013!
The Froggies bring back essentially everyone – that can be a good thing if the players experience some development, but when the status quo was a 12-21 (2-16) season, some changes might be helpful. The team’s notable changes come in the backcourt; Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson and former UNLV recruit Jaylen Fisher will challenge the incumbent starters for playing time and shots, and both could have an immediate impact. The other newcomer is Josh Parrish, younger brother of senior Brandon Parrish, who probably will struggle to see the floor in year 1.
Dixon will presumably slow the Horned Frogs down considerably; TCU was 108th in adjusted tempo last year, per KenPom, whereas in the past 7 years, a Dixon-coached team has not finished higher than 297th in that particular metric. He will attempt to instill some serious defensive chops, though surprisingly, his teams have been more consistent offensively than defensively over the years. In 13 seasons, his Pitt teams finished at an average of 21st in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, never finishing worse than 45th. That is compared to an average of 54th in defensive efficiency, with a 202nd-place finish in 2014-15 blemishing his record on that end. With that said, Dixon teams still have a well-earned reputation for being tough and physical, and I fully expect Dixon to instill that into this squad as well. Between JD Miller, Vladimir Brodziansky, Chris Washburn, and Karviar Shepard, there’s plenty of size to work with, and Dixon will likely attempt to build that toughness from the lane outwards.
Between Robinson, Fisher, and five returning rotation guards, Dixon has a plethora of options in the backcourt. It will be difficult for him not to start returnees Malique Trent and Chauncey Collins just for chemistry’s sake; both guys averaged double figures last year, and Trent also showed the ability to be a defensive pest (#11 steal rate in the country). He’s not the creator for teammates that Fisher is, though, and thus he could end up playing off the ball a bit. Collins gives the team some shooting, and the return of lanky ‘tweener Kenrich Williams from injury could be a huge factor. Dixon will love how he gets to the offensive glass, assuming the torn ACL that kept him out last year is fully healed.
I think TCU is still a fairly safe pick to finish 10th in this very competitive league, but with a year of developing the talent and the coaching upgrade to Dixon, they’ll give the other 9 teams more problems than last year. A 4-14 or 5-13 conference season would be very good progress, even if that still spells last place.